We are studying Luke 1:39-56 for Sunday, December 22. This is the episode enshrined in western art and iconography as “the visitation,” when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and is the occasion for Mary delivering the speech that has come to be known as “the Magnificat.” I am still supposed to be grading, so here a few notes that do not even come close to doing justice to this profound text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is still part of the introduction or opening to the gospel of Luke. Luke’s view of the life of Christ emphasizes Jesus’s openness to Samaritans and Gentiles from the very beginning, gives a lot of screen time to women, and never stops harping on inequalities between the rich and the poor. It’s written in erudite Greek by someone addressing an equally Greek audience, or so we think, as it tends to describe scenes and events in ways that would be more familiar to a Greek audience, and to avoid descriptions that depend on or reflect a knowledge of Judaism and rural life in “Semitic” Palestine.
The first events in Luke’s gospel, aside from the explanation that the author has done research and compiled “an orderly account” of the events being celebrated by the community, involve the angelic announcements of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s miraculous and significant pregnancies, and then our text, in which Mary hurries to Elizabeth’s home, receives her enthusiastic greeting, and stays with her for about three months, giving us the second sentence in the Hail Mary [“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Luke 1:42] and forever after making “St. Elizabeth’s” a popular name for refuge homes for unwed mothers.
Then John, Elizabeth’s son, will be born and circumcised and named, his father Zechariah will contribute the Song of Zechariah to the liturgy, and in the next chapter we will have “no room for them in the inn,” “shepherds abiding in the fields,” “a multitude of the heavenly host,” and the Gloria.
That is: we are focusing on a moment before the entrance of the Christ child, where Luke is establishing the significant social, religious, cultural, political and geographical setting of that entrance.
It seems worth paying attention to the phrase “a Judean town in the hill country” (Luke 1:39), because if we do it will remind us that lots of earlier Biblical events have occurred in this general vicinity. We don’t know which town in the Judean hill country, from Luke’s exposition; we’re left to wonder …
What if it was Bethlehem? Bethlehem is a town in the hill country of Judea. (Probably not, eh, because if it were, presumably, the Holy Family could have stayed with relatives in chapter 2, instead of in a stable.)
But what if it was Hebron? Hebron is a town in the hill country of Judea. And that possibility excites the imagination a bit, if we remember that Hebron was King David’s first capital for seven years and six months, during the civil war to unify Israel under David’s leadership as told in 2 Samuel (2 Samuel 2:1 – 5:5). Wouldn’t that make a nice bit of narrative resonance?
Especially because in Joshua 21:9-14 Kiriath-arba, that is Hebron, is the first-named town in the territory of Judah designated as a Levitical town, and the second-named town, too [that is, it’s named twice – meaning we are unlikely to miss it], and Elizabeth and Zechariah do have that Levitical connection, so … hmm …
And Hebron was also a city of refuge. So think of it, if pregnant Mary were to have visited her relative Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron, in an ancient Levitical city of refuge, a town in the hill country of Judea with a giant neon historical marker announcing “David slept here before he was king of all Israel” – an embryonic king, as it were – wouldn’t it seem like pure poetic justice?
This is all happening only in my imagination, however, because Luke doesn’t name the town. I like the idea well enough to think that Luke may have set me up to imagine all that, on purpose. Back to reality, though, Zechariah and Elizabeth could have been living just about anywhere in that hill country, as far as we know from the text.
We have already been told (Luke 1:36) that Elizabeth is Mary’s “relative.” The Greek word is general, not specific. Tradition, from at least the early 3rd century according to the New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia, has it that Elizabeth is Mary’s first cousin, the daughter of Mary’s mother’s sister. If we stretch, we might be able to convince ourselves that first cousins could be this different in age in real life, if we imagine Elizabeth is the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of a large family and that Mary is the youngest child of a youngest sibling or even half-sibling. We might think it’s easier to assume they are more distant relatives than first cousins, in spite of that tradition.
Whatever their precise genealogical degree of relationship, Mary undertakes to visit her. This might imply that she knew her well enough to do that. But it doesn’t necessarily imply that; we could imagine a scenario in which the two women have only heard of one another but never met, or almost any other set of familial circumstances. All we know from the text is that this visit takes place.
This text shows up all the time in the Revised Common Lectionary – if you missed it last year on the 4th Sunday of Advent, you’ll have a chance this year on Easter, or the year after that in the Season after Pentecost, or in Year C again in the spring … which is only to say that SOMEONE thinks this text is so important that even all the Christmas/Easter Christians need to know it. Let’s keep that in mind.
CLOSER READING: There is a lot of rising up in this text. The first thing Mary does in v39 is rise up; in Greek this is the same verb that describes what Jesus does on Easter Sunday. Then she implicitly rises up some more by going into the hill country of Judea. Then as soon as she greet Elizabeth, the embryonic John the Baptist rises up by leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, which Elizabeth remarks on again in v44. Even later, the humble will be exalted (brought up higher) in 52, switching places with the rulers God has brought down from their thrones.
[It says that.]
There are two kinds of blessedness in the text; the blessedness in v42 is the kind where you have been spoken well of, have [literally] been eulogized. The blessedness in v45 and v48 is the kind of happy blessedness enjoyed by the poor in spirit, mourners, and those who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
As Mary will point out a few verses on, they are about to be filled. [I used to have issues with verse 53, but I changed my mind.]
There is also a lot of loud, greatness in this text: Elizabeth cries out with a loud voice in v42, Mary makes great/magnifies the Kyrion in v46, God has done great things for Mary in v49.
We are always reminded to compare Mary’s long speech in vv46-55 to Hannah’s long speech of vindication in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, also on the occasion of a miraculous pregnancy.
Overall: we are dramatically called to notice something BIG that God is doing; and this something BIG involves turning things upside down: raising up the lowly, bringing down the [fake] great ones of the earth, and we might even want to say creating a whole new world. Because nothing will be impossible with God.